Growing and eating wild garlic

Very few of the really shade-tolerant vegetables are as productive, versatile and useful as wild garlic (Allium ursinum), also known as bear garlic, ramps or ramson.

When I was young, on a family holiday in Wales, I discovered a wood carpeted with ramsons. Overwhelmed by such exuberant bounty, I stuffed my pockets with leaves. In the car on the way home my parents noticed a certain odour taking over the space and after a quick search my foragings were evicted. I suppose it could have been worse, it could have been me. Nowadays I have my own tame patch of wild garlic in my allotment and I can harvest it when I like.

Wild garlic

As with many perennial crops, there is a useful synergy between wild garlic and the cultivated kind (Allium sativum). It starts to be ready just as stored bulbs are usually running out, some time in February or March, and runs through until about June.

Wild garlic can be used pretty much anywhere you want a garlicky flavour, with the caveat that the flavour doesn’t survive cooking for long, so you generally need to add it to cooked dishes near the end. Ramson pesto packs quite a punch. I like to chop it into salads: whole leaves are a bit strong to eat in bulk but chopped roughly and mixed with other leaves it is delicious. Layering a few leaves into a sandwich works well too.

If its garlic flavour were the only thing that wild garlic had going for it however, it would be best regarded as a herb and grown in a small patch in a shady corner. What makes it useful as a bulk vegetable is the very fact that it loses its garlic flavour when cooked for more than a few minutes, leaving a very tasty, oniony green. As such I use it anywhere where I would use onion, particularly as the base of a sauce, be it pasta, curry, stew or soup. You can also substitute it for spinach for delicious variations on dishes such as lasagne. It makes an excellent pot herb, either on its own or mixed with other leaves that are available at the time, such as annual and perennial kales or leaf beet.

One thing to be careful with is that wild garlic quickly develops a rather unpleasant burnt-onion taste if allowed to dry out while cooking, so you need to take care to keep it moist. In our household we love wild garlic on pizza but we always layer it at the bottom so that the other ingredients protect it.

Almost all parts of wild garlic are usable, including the leaves, stems and flowers. The flowers look amazing in a salad. The bulbs are also usable once the leaves have died down, but they are not as good as the bulbs of cultivated garlic and they don’t store very well once lifted. And of course, if you eat all the bulbs then you don’t get the other parts. That said, if you have a good supply of them you might want to try the recipe for pickled wild garlic bulbs that can be found – with many others – on the excellent Eat Weeds blog.

You can harvest wild garlic simply by pulling off individual leaves or, for less garlicky hands and to speed things up, you can cut a clump at a time with scissors. I generally put my wild garlic leaves in a bowl of cold water for five minutes as soon as I get home, to preserve and wash them. They’ll then keep for at least a week in the fridge. Another way of harvesting that gives a slightly different product is to dig up a clump and then prepare the individual plants by cutting off the roots and removing the sheath of the bulb. The whole thing then hangs together in a sort of ‘spring onion’ version of wild garlic. Fried in plenty of oil and dipped in a sauce these are gourmet food indeed.

wild garlic clump, separated

wild garlic clump, separated

Ramsons are an easy plant to grow, flourishing in the parts of the garden that most other plants avoid. They are a plant of deep woodland, so they like plenty of shade and a moist, humus-rich soil. Once you have got them established they will generally self-seed (to the point of nuisance if they weren’t so edible). Their habit of dying down in the summer makes them easy to manage as you can choose this time to top-dress them, mulch them or hoe over the top of the bulbs. They can even be used in a strip as a bit of a barrier against the spread of other plants. During the spring they suppress other plants by the strength of their growth and during the summer you can hoe the strip. Ramsons are capable of growing through quite a thick mulch: their leaves form green spikes that punch up through mulch before unfurling. Alternatively the dormant period is long enough that you could fit in another crop or a green manure, or interplant wild garlic with another perennial that makes use of the later part of the year.

wild garlic - just emerging

wild garlic – just emerging

Wild garlic will tolerate growing in the open, but as soon as there is hot sun its leaves will burn off and it will retreat to its bulb. It is worth growing some wild garlic in the deepest shade you can find, in which case it will persist until midsummer.

Wild garlic can be raised from seed or, more easily, grown from bulbs. The bulbs do not store like those of cultivated garlic, they dry out and die quite quickly if they are not stored moist. They transplant very well ‘in the green’ (while the bulbs are growing), which also avoids the problem of forgetting where you have planted the bulbs! If you are in Scotland, don’t forget that it is legal to pick leaves, flowers and seeds for your own use without the owner’s permission but not to uproot a plant (e.g. by transplanting bulbs) or to harvest commercially. If you want to do either of these you will have to ask the owner.

One word of warning, whether you are foraging wild garlic or growing it. While wild garlic is entirely edible, it can be growing in with leaves of plants that are quite poisonous, as most of the spring bulbs are. It is hard to mistake wild garlic for anything else when you look closely – the combination of the broad, soft leaf and the garlic smell is unique – but if you are picking lots of leaves you might become a little careless. In the photo below you’ll see a patch of poisonous snowdrops growing in about the wild garlic, so if you are foraging, take care, and if you are growing I would recommend removing any snowdrops, bluebells or other spring bulbs from the same bed.

wild garlic 02

Photo: Monimail Tower woodlands from Scottish Wild Harvests Association’s Forage In Fife.

Further reading: Forest Gardening; Real Spring Onions.

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27 thoughts on “Growing and eating wild garlic

  1. Great post! That is quite a patch of wild garlic there! I have been trying to start some from seed, but so far, have not been successful. Perhaps they need a period of cold first. I have not seen it in the wild where I live (Pacific Northwest of the U.S.), but our climates are quite similar.

  2. Hi Blythe. That’s not my patch – it’s at a community a way south of here called Monimail Tower. My own patch is rather more modest, but wild garlic definitely does tend to take over if you let it. A lot of the forestry trees and other plants we use here in Scotland come from the Pacific Northwest due to the similar climate, so I imagine wild garlic should grow well with you if you can get it started. Best of luck with it. Alan

  3. Really useful and definitive post, especially the tips on how to cook them well. I’ve got a patch growing nicely in the garden and am amazed at how readily they spread. I’ve also been experimenting with growing cultivated garlic as a perennial. It extends the season a little further as the green shoots are out (from January in Wiltshire this year) before the wild garlic is ready to be harvested. The shoots are a great substitute for spring onions when cooked, particularly in stir fries.

    • That’s really interesting. I grow cultivated garlic that way too but in my case the wild garlic definitely has a head start on the ‘spring garlic’, which is only just beginning to emerge. I imagine that cultivated garlic is more sensitive to temperature since it doesn’t have a woodland canopy to buffer it, while wild garlic needs to get on and photosynthesise before the trees leaf up, whatever the weather. I completely agree about the stir fries too!

  4. That is interesting. It might be in my case that my wild garlic is in a spot shaded by a building until later in the season so the ground probably warms up later. On the other hand my tame garlic gets the sun on the soil, at least until the trees leaf out. I wonder if the variety of the cultivated garlic makes much difference? Really enjoy your blog by the way.

  5. It’s illegal to uproot wild plants without the landowner’s permission, but fine to pick the leaves so long as you don’t overdo it. You can also harvest seed to grow your own. If you are trying to get plants then you’ll need to ask the landowner’s permission to dig some up or get some bulbs or potted plants from a supplier.

    • They freeze pretty well, yes. I wouldn’t use them in salads after thawing, but they are still good for cooking with. You can also wilt them in oil before freezing which makes them take up less room in the freezer. I generally don’t freeze them because other alliums and greens become available later and I like the seasonality of it, but if you have a glut of them it’s a good way to preserve them.

    • Allium tricoccum is native to the eastern half of North America while A. ursinum is Eurasian. I’ve never seen Allium tricoccum but from descriptions it has very similar form, habitat, taste and uses to ursinum. I assume they are closely related and European settlers seem to have transferred ursinum names directly onto tricoccum, especially ‘ramps’, the Scots equivalent of ‘ramson’ (from Old English hramsaen – onions). I hope people have the sense to leave both species where they are as they are quite likely to invade each other’s habitats. A. tricoccum is of conservation concern in some US states and Canadian provinces, so growing it at home seems like an especially good idea. Interestingly, the usually reliable Plants for a Future database has a description of A. tricoccum that is considerably different from those to be found everywhere else.

  6. I have bought bulbs to plant. Do I put the whole bulb and short stem under the soil or just the bulb please?

    • The general rule for planting bulbs is that you plant them so that the bottom of the bulb is at a depth of twice the length of the bulb. So if the bulb is 10cm you dig a 20cm hole for it. If you look at the clump of dug-up bulbs in the article you’ll see this is roughly right: there is the bulb which appears as a kind of sheath around the bottom of the stem, then there is white stem for an equal length above it – that is the part of the stem that has grown underground.

  7. I love wild garlic. I stumbled (or more accurately crashed during sledging) across it in a tiny corner of a woodland on the outskirts of Sheffield a couple of years ago. Since then its taken over a huge section by the stream.

  8. I was in the South Lakes at the weekend and it was everywhere, it’s much more prevalent than it’s been in previous years. I wonder if it will be classed as an “invasive species” like Japanese Knotweed and Himalayan Balsam. I have a suspicion one posh eaterie in Cartmel had it on their menu as “hedge garlic”!

  9. Wish I’d seen this website a few weeks ago. As a total novice, I ordered some bulbs in the green and planted them in a separate tub in compost, as I only have a small garden and didn’t want them to overrrun. I didn’t put them in shade, and now they’re looking very sorry for themselves. Anything I can do to ensure they’ll come back next year? Obviously, I’ll move the tub into a shady spot.

    • Hi Ian. They like to be moist, so make sure that you don’t let the tub dry out. And if they look like they have died, don’t give up hope until next year: they may just have died back to the bulb prematurely. Also remember not to neglect it once it has died down. A lot of bulbs in tubs die because people forget about them once they aren’t visible and forget to water them. Planting something else in the pot can help with this.

  10. We are growing wild garlic very successfully and we are harvesting the seeds, the leaves are great in salads and if you are not a lover of garlic you will enjoy the leaves.

  11. I have garlic growing in my garden in Southern Spain, in full sun. The ground is very hard and dry. No I did not plant it, but it invades the whole bed unless I am ruthless. Only now am I realising that I can use it and am looking forward to trying the stuff posted here. The only difference I can see is that the leaves are much narrower.

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